Thursday , February 29 2024
Anatomy of Boston Celtics' first NBA championship.

Book Review: Rise of a Dynasty: The ’57 Celtics, the First Banner, and the Dawning of a New America by Bill Reynolds

For some of us who have been around long enough to remember the great Celtics teams of the late fifties and sixties, those memories are not always very fond. Myself, I was a Knicks fan and the Celtics were anathema. Bob Cousy making those showboat behind the back passes; Bill Russell coming from nowhere to block every shot near the key; Jim Loscutoff throwing elbows; Bill Sharman shooting the ball like he had funnel to the basket: the Boston Celtics were enough to make you cry. And worst of all was the cocky, smug little son of a — expletive deleted — who sat on the bench lighting up that stinking cigar whenever he thought he had the game in hand, Red Auerbach. The Knicks had a nice team: there was Carl Braun, there was Richie Gruerin, Harry Gallatin, Ray Felix, but they were no match for the Celtics.

So for some of us reading Bill Reynolds’ gushing tribute to the ’57 NBA champion Celtics Rise of a Dynasty: The ’57 Celtics, the First Banner, and the Dawning of a New America is like having salt rubbed in old wounds. I’m not sure I want to hear about how good Tommy Heinsohn was or how Auerbach invented the sixth man idea for Frank Ramsey. I’m not sure I need to be reminded that there were really only two big men who mattered back then and the Knicks didn’t have either of them. The funny thing is that back then we didn’t think that Boston was all that wonderful. I can remember arguing about who was better, Cousy or Dick McGuire; Braun or Sharman. It is only with hindsight and after all those championship banners were hung over the parquet floor in Boston Garden that it’s just how overmatched our beloved Knicks were.

After a prologue in which he talks about the current Boston team and the state of the sport in general, Reynolds takes us back to 1957. Cousy and Heinsohn are driving together to the deciding seventh game of the championship series against the St. Louis Hawks. Cousy is the veteran point guard; Heinsohn is the rookie forward who never met a shot he wouldn’t take. They are playing for the team that was the odds on favorite to take the title, yet the series was tied three games apiece. The Hawks had won the sixth game at home, and they had already shown they could win in Boston. One of the great games in basketball history war about to get underway, a game in a series that, as Reynolds would have it, not only changed basketball forever, but presaged the kinds of social changes that were taking place in the country as well. The scene set, he goes back for a cursory history of the sport and an explanation of what it had developed into at the time the game was being played.

Basketball in the fifties was a minor league sport. Teams were located in places like Rochester, New York and Fort Wayne, Indiana and there were only eight of them altogether. There was no television contract. Arenas seldom sold out. There were no huge player contracts. In cities with multiple professional franchises, little attention was paid to the basketball team. Boston was no exception. It was a Red Sox town. The Celtics were small potatoes. The ’57 championship and the team that won are what began to change all that, not only in Boston but for the rest of the league as well. While there will certainly be some who will argue the last part of this, there is no question that as far as Boston is concerned, this was indeed the birth of dynasty.

There is also no question that the Boston dynasty both mirrored and profited from the kinds of social changes that were taking place in the country, especially with regard to race relations. Bill Russell, their great center, may not have been the first African-American to play professional sports or even professional basketball, but he may well have been the first to do so on his own terms. As Reynolds points out more than once, Russell was not a man to smile and play the fool. He demanded respect and he got it. He refused to shave his little goatee. He refused to sign autographs. He practiced only when he wanted to. He wouldn’t take any of the rookie hazing from the veterans. He was his own man. He demanded the kind of treatment that has hopefully become the norm today. Later it was the Celtics that was the first team to put five black players on the floor at the same time. Auerbach, it was said, cared nothing about the color of a player’s skin, all he was interested in was whether he could play. Black or white, he wanted winners. Changing social values enabled him to get what he wanted.

The most impressive things about Rise of a Dynasty are the little tidbits about the Runyonesque characters around the birth of professional basketball. Auerbach, the coach who stowed his wife and child in Washington, DC while he lived in a hotel in Boston and ordered in Chinese food to eat alone after a game, is only one in a large cast of eccentrics. Hawks’ owner Ben Kerner lives with his mother and promises not to marry while she is still living. Maurice Podoloff, league president, argues with the fans in the Garden lobby about the bias of the referees. Bill Russell throws up before each game. Bill Sharman is a fitness nut, who compulsively follows the same pregame routines. These are the kinds of details that make the book interesting.

There are times, however, when Reynolds gets a little repetitious. He tells the story about how Auerbach at first was unhappy that he got “stuck” with Bob Cousy, a player he spoke of as some “local yokel.” This is a great story — the first time you hear it. The same is true of Bill Russell realizing he could be a great player when in high school he jumped up and noticed he was looking down at the basket. Auerbach and the Chinese food, Cousy and Russell being cut from their high school teams, Emmet Kelly, the famous clown, performing at half time to attract customers, all these are repeated, and these are only examples that come to mind. There are plenty of others.

Rise of a Dynasty is a book about a team that has become a legend. It talks about men who have risen to almost mythic proportions. It is a book about the development of professional basketball. It tries to consider all of this in broad social and historical terms. If it doesn’t always succeed, it is impossible to quarrel with its aims.

About Jack Goodstein

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